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Refrigerator philosophy

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I'm moving. And not just from one house to another, but from one living situation to another. For years, I've lived in a group house. Before that, I lived in college. Before that, with my parents. This will be my first time living alone, with all the control over one's space that that implies. And so I'm giving a lot of thought to the setup of my new place, and in particular, to the kitchen. I'm convinced that how you lay out your kitchen changes both how you eat and how you cook. For now, I've got two main principles. First, you don't eat what you can't see, both for good and for bad. Second, calories should take work to access.

A year or so back, I was reporting out a story on the behavioral economics papers influencing the Obama administration. One of the sources for that story offhandedly mentioned a study that showed men eat far more fruits and vegetables if they're stored on the same shelf as the beer. Similarly, I've come across studies showing that storing fruits and vegetables at eye-level does more to increase consumption than subsidizing them. The irony of the crisper drawer at the base of the fridge is that it keeps produce fresh for longer, but since you also forget that the produce exists, it makes it more likely that it goes bad altogether. I've lost more produce that way than I'd like to admit. Good produce. In my fridge, fruits and vegetables go on the top drawers. The crisper area is going to get sauce overflow, or maybe bread.

Similarly, I like to snack. And I don't have much self-control, or really any self-control, when I'm around snack food. Worse, in my new place, I'll be a whole lot nearer to the fridge than I was in the large, rambling group house I previously inhabited. To keep myself from gaining a gut, I'm trying avoid storing much food that can be instantly eaten. Aside from fruits and vegetables, I'm trying to make the calories in my kitchen difficult to access: That means storing food I have to cook before it becomes edible. In my experience, the desire to not boil water is stronger than the desire to snack. That means crackers, chocolate chips, granola, and cereals are out.

I'll miss you, chocolate chips.

In the last place, my pantry was a mess. I stored dried foods on three shelves of a fairly high, fairly deep, cabinet. Cleaning it out was a sad reminder of how much good food had disappeared beneath other foods, left to grow stiff, stale, and inedible. It was a good learning experience, though. In the new place, I had to choose between a standalone pantry or some sort of cabinet for dishes and cups. I went with a standalone pantry, as it meant I could leave it open. This one, in fact. The fact that visitors will see it ensure I'll keep it neat. The fact that I'll see it ensures I'll know what's there. At least that's the hope, anyway.

That's what I've thought of so far, at least. Anyone else have organizational principles that help them cook, or eat, better?


Photo credit: Richard Anderson, under a Creative Commons license.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 2, 2009; 3:59 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

Get a small fridge. We have one that is about 60% the size of the average fridge, and raised up two feet so everything is at eye level. Very few things are ever left to go bad - there's just no room for them to get lost.

Posted by: jeirvine | November 2, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse

My main advice right now would be to live in your new space for a little bit BEFORE you make any financial or physical commitment to any particular organizing principle. Seriously. Live and work in your new kitchen for a while, see how it works for you, and THEN think about what you have to change, and how you have to organize.

Not bringing home bad snack foods in the first instance, though, that's a very good idea.

Posted by: nolo93 | November 2, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Don't buy that fridge in the photo.

If you can, get one with the freezer on the bottom; that way the crisper drawers don't require you to bend down. You'll find you open the fridge a lot more than the freezer.

I would go with a walk in pantry, but that's me.

You'll figure out which appliances you use often, and keep those in places that are convenient. For me, that means keeping the food processor at hand and the coffee maker in the laundry room.

Oh, and make sure you have a cool place to store stout. We keep it in our living room, since I didn't follow my advice on that walk in pantry.

Islands are nice--for food preparation, not vacationing on. if you don't have one you can buy one easily. Make sure there's room for people to sit in your kitchen, because that's where you'll spend most of your time. Or again, maybe that's just me.

Posted by: KathyF | November 2, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I agree that keeping the bad snacks out of the house is the best way to avoid turning to them when temptation hits. Also, don't be afraid to waste food sometimes. When I have friends over, I'll buy foods that I otherwise wouldn't keep around -- chips, dips, pizza. (Sure, I could go all healthy all the time, but if my friends don't eat that way, I don't think it would be much fun for them. Or for me.) But when the evening is over, anything that I can't convince someone else to take goes in the trash. It's the only sure way to keep myself from snacking on leftovers and turning one evening of indulgence into a 3-day binge.

Posted by: Janine1 | November 2, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

get a big, colorful fruit bowl....
and fill it!

Posted by: jkaren | November 2, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

"For years, I've lived in a group house. Before that, I lived in college. Before that, with my parents. This will be my first time living alone, with all the control over one's space that that implies."

Everyone grows up sometime...

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 2, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: link to your Refrigerator choice as an example of what you're talking about and how you plan to lay it out inside. Less for a Product Placement, but more for the visual of what you're talking about.

I agree with the snackfood comment of nolo93: the best solution is to not bring it home. I've cut 80-90% of it out at home and work. When you're baseline is getting rid of 80%+ of the junkfood you eat, you have a pretty wide margin of what you do with the 10-20% you keep. And there are ways to make it an "effort" to eat rather than something to instantly pop in your mouth... or in the case of a cookie jar, easy to take the whole thing to your desk and munch away on while working on the computer.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | November 2, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

a friend once told me that she thought you should spend several months in a new place before you renovate, so that you learn where you like to be in the space, where the light falls at certain times of day, etc.

I agree with Nolo93: live in the kitchen as it is for a few weeks or months before changing it.

Some of my principles:

Get a wide sink. It makes cleanup of large frying pans, hotel pans, cookie sheets and oven racks so much easier.
And yes, a bottom freezer is best if you fill your fridge with lots of fresh produce.
And if you are going to freeze lots of produce or food, get a separate chest freezer.
Ikea has great (and cheap) kitchen drawer inserts that can organize all your kitchen stuff.
Pull out pantry drawers are great for blenders and food processors, but not for cans. You can't stack cans of tomatoes on a shelf that moves.

Posted by: robinshuster | November 2, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I second the "freezer on bottom" fridge. Much, much, much easier and nicer.

Always have low-calorie drinks around. A lot of the time that we think we're hungry, we're actually thirsty. Also, change the varieties often, or your palate will get bored.

And listen to your body--yes, it's good to have low-cal snacks around, but make sure they hit your unique food needs. For instance, crunchy food makes me feel full. So, I have raw veggies around all the time. I even have incredibly high-fiber totally tasteless cereal that I crunch and I really, really enjoy. My husband likes sweet food--that makes him feel satisfied. So he happily eats fresh fruit. Maybe your thing is spicy, so you have to have chili powder around to put on your mangoes?

I'm saying you have to have snacks around that hit your "ahhh, this is awesome" spot. Because most humans won't sustain voluntary deprivation, and you really don't have time to cook every meal. You'll go back to what works for everyone--the focus-tested delicious and cheap and fast and murderously fattening prepared foods.

Posted by: theorajones1 | November 2, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra -- the great thing about having a place of your own is that YOU control what food goes in.

Don't want junk food in the house? Don't buy it. Simple as that.

Also +++ to the advice about waiting and living in the spacer before investing heavily in how you're going to set it up. How you think you're going to use the space and how you're actually going to use it are generally not the same.

Posted by: Sprezzatura | November 2, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

I have absolutely no willpower, and thus I try to keep no (none!) food that I can snack on without first cooking it (besides fruit and veg). This means that I stick pretty well to a 3 meal/day diet.

When I stick to my plan, that is..

Posted by: hutchie6 | November 2, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

I learned about the perfect solution for forgetting food in those crisper drawers on Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Show, when I used to live in St. Paul. They regularly featured ads for "Genway, the supermarket for genetically modified foods." Some time back in the '90s, their weekly special was a cantaloupe that had been crossed with a cocker spaniel, so it would follow you around wherever you went and you'd never forget it was there. (Here's another example of a brilliant Genway idea: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/radio/programs/morning_show/features/scripts/030130_genwaytomatoes.shtml)

Posted by: RachelM2 | November 2, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

My USD$0.02:

Never grocery shop hungry. You always end up buying more junk when everything looks good. I try to eat a bunch of baby carrots before shopping. That drastically reduces by Doritos budget.

Shop frequently enough that you can buy fresh food. I used to do a big shop only every 7-10 days, which meant I was out of good bananans and other fresh stuff. Now I get produce from a farm share, plus hit the store 1-2 times a week, so I never run out.

Cooks Illustrated magazine. Never has humanity created such a treasure trove of good advice and recipes. Nearly everything is the best recipe I've tried, and it makes you feel like a chef. Plus, they often make "better" versions that are a little more involved, which makes me feel a sense of accomplishment, and, thus, more likely to eat the leftovers happily.

Posted by: RDaneel | November 2, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with the "wait until you organize" philosophy. For me, I just become complacent during that period and often never end up making the planned changes. I'm all in favor of making the organizational changes from day one so that you know no other way in that new dwelling.

I fully agree with keeping the vegetables out of the crisper drawer. In my house, vegetables that go in that drawer, go bad in that drawer. Keep them immediately visible to constantly remind yourself to use them. I also agree with the idea of never having easy snacks on hand. No chips, crackers, cookies, etc.

But, for me, the key is to always have a backup plan for all my fruits and vegetables. If my bananas are turning too brown for me to want to eat, I throw them in the freezer and the next rainy day, I make banana bread (overripe brown bananas are great for that). Too much melon to eat in too short a time? make agua fresca. Too many berries going uneaten? make a smoothie. Left over basil from dish? turn it into pesto and freeze it. Throw together vegetables into a casserole and freeze that. In short, whenever you're forced to buy more of a fruit/vegetable than what your recipe calls for, make sure you have a plan for what you'll do with the rest, lest it just sits there, unused, waiting to go bad.

And always have staples on hand. If you always have your flours, oils, spices, baking soda, sugars, rice, chicken stock, etc. on hand, you'll always be able to whip something up. I never ceased to be amazed by how many different things can be made with a relatively small number of staples. With just flour, egg, butter, sugar, etc. you should be able to turn a number of items about to go bad into a torte, quiche, pie, bread, muffin, cake, etc. (not that all of these things are the healthiest to eat...) And always keep some canned versions of things (even if you much prefer fresh!) like tomatoes, corn, beans, etc. in the pantry for those last minute recipes.

Posted by: nylund | November 2, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

"I'm all in favor of making the organizational changes from day one so that you know no other way in that new dwelling."

The first thing we did any semi-serious decorating on was the pantry, which needed cleaning, patching, painting, and the shelves replacing. Having good storage for staples means that you have room to get a sense of the kitchen, not to get over-familiar with the layout, but to take stock of its quirks.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 2, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

To nylund I have this to say -- it's one thing to have gotten too complacent to change the way things were when you got there, and it's another one entirely to have invested a lot of energy and money and existential commitment to a reorganization plan and THEN feel like you shouldn't change it because you're all committed to it. Oh, and also you're complacent. Double whammy, I say. I remain firm in my conviction that you should feel your way through the space first.

I also agree with robinschuster that a biga** sink is the way to go. And forget about those double-basin jobs. When I finally blew out my old kitchen and built a new one, I found the biggest, deepest single-basin sink on the market, and I remain absolutely ecstatic with it. For one thing, I can get my biga** stock pot in it.

Posted by: nolo93 | November 2, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

On organizing your kitchen:
1. Don't own a car. Ride a bike or run everywhere.
2. You'll have extra money to spend on extravagant food, you'll always be starving, and you'll have to carry those groceries home. You can be both self-indulgent and puritanical with no effort.
3. Centaurs will start to seem really really cool. As a concept. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
4. Congratulations on the new place.
5. Oh, the kitchen will take care of itself.

Posted by: r2d3 | November 2, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

You're right -- if there's no easy snack food at home, then you can't slip up and eat it. My trick is to always have plain popcorn at home; put it in a paper bag; microwave it and 2 and a half minutes later you have a not-too-sinful snack.

Posted by: goadri | November 2, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

Never, ever store bread (or any baked good) in a refrigerator. That just leads to stale bread. (Your grandparents sensibly stored bread on the counter, in a breadbox.) If you're not going to eat bread or other baked goods quickly, freeze them. (Stale baked goods can be de-staled -- the chemical term -- in a microwave oven.)

Fred Brack, Seattle

Posted by: fredbrack | November 2, 2009 10:55 PM | Report abuse

Leaving your refrigerator in the no parking zone should do it.

Posted by: pj_camp | November 2, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

These are great ideas, but they probably don't apply much to you. I doubt you can decide how wide your sink is or if your kitchen is big enough for an island. It's a rental, right? What you can control is how you fill up the space. Living in it for a "little"while is a good idea, but if you leave it too long, you don't really see what you need any more. So don't wait too long. Also, I doubt you have the time to shop every day for fresh food. So that suggestion is lovely but not practical. There are quite a lot of healthy snack foods. If you're a snacker, maybe good to have a few things around so you don't feel too deprived.
Good luck! You will love having your own place.

Posted by: LindaB1 | November 2, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

I just have a regular fridge with a freezer at the top, cheapest one available at the time I purchased it. It's always full to overflowing with huge bags of produce (I'm a cookbook writer and editor and recipe tester), but usually I keep highly perishable stuff (lettuce, herbs, delicate berries, half-onions or -peppers) in one crisper drawer and long-term-storage produce (citrus, apples, turnips) in the other. When I need a vegetable for supper, I just check the first drawer and see what's there.

And probably the best freezer advice I've read comes from Bob Flowerdew (no relation to your fave Crescent Dragonwagon): Last in, first out. Use the good stuff first—you know, because it's good—and save the old frosty stuff for dire emergencies, blackouts, wartime. Makes sense to me.

Posted by: lianakrissoff1 | November 3, 2009 7:37 AM | Report abuse

r2d3 nails it. Get enough exercise that you have hardly time enough to eat.

All this other stuff is old-person fixes. Young people are always going out to dinner, entertaining, skipping meals, eating on the fly, and indulging their remaining childish appetites. It would be cruel not to.

Ditch the car, get a good bike, and the rest of the stuff will fall into proper proportion.

Posted by: serialcatowner | November 3, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

There is a great solution to chocolate chips- buy a chocolate/ice chipper and bittersweet chocolate by the kilogram. That way you can keep chocolate in the house and it's too much work to snack on. Also the biggest complaint that I have about my current kitchen is that basically cabinets can't be deeper than they are wide. If so, they are impossible to get things out.

Posted by: tmorgan2 | November 3, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Don't buy a microwave. The vast, vast majority of what you'd do with one is unhealthy. If you don't own a microwave, the vast majority of "instant" meals (hot pockets) become inaccessible to you. It's for the better. It's one appliance I don't own and I've never missed.

More to the point, this is more a shopping problem than a kitchen problem. You just need to have the discipline to buy ingredients only, and not buy processed pre-cooked foods. It doesn't matter how your kitchen is set up if you can stick to that.

Posted by: ejp1082 | November 3, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

To paraphrase one of the great masters, No more advice do you require. Already have that which you need.

But yes, stop buying the food you don't want to eat. For that, organize your life, not your kitchen.

Posted by: Brian5 | November 3, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Here is a great piece of advice from top nutritionist Joel Fuhrman M.D. (author of the very highly recommended "Eat to Live"):

First thing in a meal eat a large (or very large) salad. This will fill you up quite a bit, so that when you get to the less healthy stuff, there will be a lot less room for it. Also, the salad will taste better because you will be eating it when you are hungriest.

I also add a large portion of cooked vegetables, often over a pound. This works very well for me. I do end up eating much less of the less healthy and/or more fattening stuff later in the meal.

As I've said before I strongly recommend you read Dr. Fuhrman's book "Eat to Live". If you're too busy now, at least 10 pages here and there, and eventually you'll finish it. He makes a very strong scientific case for a diet at least 85% unprocessed or little processed plant food.

Another tip: Microwaved frozen vegetables. You put a pound in a Pyrex dish, put the lid on, and microwave for about 10 minutes. Then you can put on some healthier margarine (even with some margarine, the calorie to fillingness ratio will still be very low. The benefits of adding the margarine well outweigh the costs if it means eating a lot more vegetables) and butter buds and spices. The prep and cooking times are extremely low, and frozen vegetables are pretty inexpensive and non-perishable. Microwave cooking is also relatively low heat and healthy.

One more tip: Dr. Fuhrman says that when you go from an unhealthy diet to a Fuhrman diet your taste buds will re-sensitize to sugar, salt, and fat, and the diet will get to taste better. I've found this is true for me to a substantial extent. Fruit tastes much sweeter, I rarely feel a desire to sprinkle salt on food etc.

I have found that with this, and learning good recipes, restaurants, etc. I can get very close to the taste pleasure out of a very healthy diet that I got out of a much less healthy one.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 3, 2009 7:25 PM | Report abuse

By the way, here is Dr. Fuhrman's food pyramid:

http://www.drfuhrman.com/shop/poster.aspx

Some things to note:

1) The bottom is vegetables, not fruits and vegetables. Fruits are one level up (they're more fattening and a little less nutritious than vegetables).

2) For vegetables he writes 1/2 raw and 1/2 cooked. The human digestive system is not as strong as animals', so certain nutrients are hard to get at without cooking to aid the digestive system. The all raw foods people end up with serious health problems.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 3, 2009 7:34 PM | Report abuse

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